SMS Scharnhorst (1906)

On 4 December this year, a team lead by British marine archaeologist Mensum Bound announced that they had found the wreck of the German armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst in 1,610 m (5,280 ft) of water, 98 nautical miles (181 km; 113 miles) southeast of the Falkland Islands. The announcement followed a search that began in 2014 for the ships of Adm. Maximillian Graf von Spee’s ill-fated East Asia Squadron, sunk in the opening months of World War I at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

Named for the Prussian military reformer Gerhardt von Scharnhorst, Seiner Majestät Schiff (‘His Majesty’s Ship’) Scharnhorst was launched on 23 March 1906. Her one sister ship, SMS Gneisenau, was launched on 14 June 1906. The Scharnhorst class, as they were known (Gneisenau was ordered first, but a shipyard strike delayed her construction), displaced 12,780 long tons with a full load. They were 144.6 meters (474 ft 5 in) in length, 21.6 m (70 ft 10 in) in beam, with a draft of 8.37 m (27 ft 6 in). Their triple-expansion engines produced 26,000 metric horsepower (19,000 kW) for a maximum speed of 22.5 knots. The ships had a main armament of eight 8.3-inch and six 5.9-inch guns and a secondary armament of eighteen casemated 3.5-inch gun. In addition, they had four torpedo tubes – one forward, one aft, and two broadside. Their armour ranged from 8 to 15 cm (3.1 to 5.9 in), with the maximum thickness along the waterline and at the midships ‘citadel’. They were superior to earlier German designs and were a match for any non-capital ship of their day.

Scharnhorst was commissioned on 24 October 1907 and after completing her trials, she was assigned to the High Seas Fleet, where she participated in training exercises and fleet manoeuvres. In March 1909, she was reassigned to the East Asia Squadron, where she ‘flew the flag’ touring Germany’s East Asian and Pacific colonies. In March 1911, she was joined by the Gneisenau and on 4 December she became the flagship of the squadron’s new commander, Konteradmiral  (Rear-Admiral) von Spee. Promoted to Vizeadmiral (Vice-Admiral) the following year, von Spee would retain command of the East Asia Squadron for the remainder of its existence.

In August 1914, when war finally broke out, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been in service for less than seven years, but they were already obsolete. The intervening period had seen a revolution in warship design. At the beginning of the twentieth century, armoured cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were less heavily armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. Their role was to act as the ‘eyes’ of a battle-group and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight. They could also operate on detached duties or – as with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – the lead ships of a squadron in distant waters.

All this changed in 1906, when British First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher came up with the idea of an ‘all-big-gun’ warship, which dispensed with secondary and intermediate calibre guns and was powered by the new Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines. The first ship built to this design was HMS Dreadnought. At 20,730 long tons, she displaced only slightly more than the preceding Lord Nelson class battleships, but at 21 knots she was significantly faster, and she had more than twice the firepower of any other ship afloat. With ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleships rendered obsolete at a stroke, a naval arms race broke out between Britain and Germany – but Adm. Fisher had another brainwave up his sleeve.

What would happen if you put big guns into a fast but lightly armoured ship? The result was HMS Invincible. Comparable in displacement and armament to HMS Dreadnought, she could make an astounding 25.5 knots – but at the expense of armour. Launched in 1907, the Royal Navy classified her as an armoured cruiser, but the media referred to her variously as a dreadnought cruiser, a battleship-cruiser, and finally as a battlecruiser. In November 1911, the Royal Navy adopted the latter term.

At the outbreak of hostilities, von Spee’s squadron comprised the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Emden, Nurnberg, and Leipzig. On 13 August, the Emden, commanded by Karl von Muller, was detached to act as a commerce raider. Emden captured over twenty Allied freighters and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet before she was finally overpowered by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands. Von Spee’s squadron was reinforced by the arrival of the light cruiser Dresden.

On 1 November, von Spee’s ships encountered the British Fourth Cruiser Squadron off Coronel, Chile. The resulting Battle of Coronel was a one-sided affair. The British force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, comprised the armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope (flag) and HMS Monmouth, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, and the armed merchantman HMS Otranto. Cradock, on the lookout for the Germans, had left behind the elderly but sturdy pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus, whose 12-inch guns could at least have kept Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at bay. Silhouetted against the setting sun, Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk with all hands; only Glasgow and Otranto escaped the rout. The German squadron suffered minimal casualties and damage – but they had expended over half of their ammunition in the battle.

Word of the defeat soon reached London, where Fisher wasted no time in dispatching the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to the South Atlantic to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s ships. Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee was placed in command.  On 26 November, the battlecruisers rendezvoused with the remnants of Cradock’s force, along with the armoured cruisers Kent, Carnarvon, and Cornwall, and the light cruiser Bristol. The force proceeded to the Falkland Islands where HMS Canopus was grounded at Port Stanley to act as a guardship.

Meanwhile, von Spee’s squadron had captured a British collier and now had all the coal they needed, but there was no possibility of replenishing their ammunition. Von Spee decided to return to Germany, but first he proposed to attack the Royal Navy base on Falkland Islands. His captains mostly opposed the plan, but they were overruled.

On the morning of 8 December 1914, the East Asia Squadron was sighted by civilians at Fitzroy, who alerted the navy base at Port Stanley. The entire British squadron was coaling, but as von Spee’s ships approached Stanley the Canopus opened fire and Kent was making her way out of the harbour. With the bulk of the British ships still at anchor, von Spee might yet have been able to press home his attack. But sighting the tripod masts of the battlecruisers, he realised that he was up against a superior force and decided to make a run for it.

It was 10:00 before the battlecruisers left port and von Spee’s ships were 13 nautical miles ahead. But Invincible and Inflexible could outrun and outgun Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. By 13:00, the battlecruisers had closed the range and opened fire. To give his smaller ships a chance of escape, von Spee turned back with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and engaged the British ships. Scharnhorst repeatedly attempted to close to within torpedo range of the battlecruisers, but without success. By 16:04, her smokestacks had been shot away, she was on fire, and listing. At 16:17, she sank with all hands; the British ships, still in action against the Gneisenau, were unable to attempt any rescue of survivors. The Gneisenau fought on bravely, but at 18:06 she finally succumbed. Invincible and Inflexible hastened to pick up survivors, but only 190 men were rescued. Meanwhile, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden fled the battle, hotly pursued by Kent, Glasgow, and Cornwall. Nurnberg and Leipzig were sunk with the loss of all but a handful of men; Dresden escaped though she was later cornered and sunk off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915.

German losses were 1,871 officers and men, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. A total of 215 survived. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands proved to be the finest hour for the battlecruiser. The light armour was its Achilles heel: three were lost at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and in 1941, HMS Hood was sunk while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. In the mid-1930s, the new German navy, the Kriegsmarine, built two battleships named for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Again, though, they were no match for British capital ships and the second Scharnhorst was sunk by HMS Duke of York at the Battle of the North Cape. The Gneisenau, which was undergoing a refit that would have upgraded her armament, was scrapped on Hitler’s orders. Adm. von Spee was commemorated by the ‘panzerschiff’ Graff Spee,  which was scuttled at Montevideo on 20 December 1939 on the orders of her captain, KptzS Hans Langsdorff, after sustaining heavy damage from British warships at the Battle of the River Plate. Three days later, Langsdorff killed himself despite having conducted himself in an entirely honourable manner throughout.

To this day, 8 December is a public holiday in the Falklands, and on that day in 2014 – the hundredth anniversary of the battle – the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust instigated a search for von Spee’s ships. The search was unsuccessful, but a second attempt was made in December this year with four deep-sea robot submarines operated from the search vessel Seabed Constructor. After just three days the Scharnhorst was located. She is standing upright in a debris field, her hull largely intact although little remains of her superstructure. The Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust will seek to have the site protected in law. The search for the three other ships sunk in the battle will continue.

Tomb of Flight Sub Lieut. Reginald Warneford, VC

Reginald Warneford was a pilot in the Royal Navy Air Service, having transferred from the Army soon after joining up. By May 1915 he was on active duty with 1 Wing at Veurne on the Belgian coast, which the Germans never managed to occupy. He rapidly made a name for himself with attacks upon German troops and aircraft, and was assigned his own aircraft – a French-built Morane-Saulnier Type L monoplane. On 7 June near Ghent he encountered the German Zeppelin LZ 37. He engaged the heavily-armed airship, managed to climb above it, and attacked it with bombs. His last bomb set the airship on fire and brought it down, but the explosion damaged his own aircraft. Forced to land behind enemy lines, Warneford managed to effect repairs and returned safely to base.

For this not inconsiderable act of bravery and cool-headed thinking,Warneford was awarded both the Victoria Cross and the French Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, but sadly he was dead just ten days later. On 17 June, after receiving the Légion d’honneur from the French Army Commander in Chief, Warneford travelled to Buc in order to fly an aircraft for delivery to the RNAS at Veurne. He made a short test flight alone, then a second flight with American journalist Henry Beach Newman as a passenger.The aircraft broke up in flight, and both men were fatally injured: Newman died at the scene and Warneford on his way to hospital.

He was buried at Brompton Cemetery on 21 June 1915 in a ceremony attended by thousands of mourners

Pocket Watch of J.G. Seddon

This US-made Waltham pocket watch was presented to my grandfather John Glanville Seddon for his services in World War I.

The inscription reads “Presented to Cllr. J.G. Seddon by the people of Farnworth in recognition of distinguished services rendered in the Great War 1914-1918”. My grandfather served as a councillor and became Mayor of Farnworth, Lancashire in 1957.

The back of the watch has the monogram JGS.

The watch utilises the then widely-used American Traveller movement. It is in full working order.

The watch passed to my father, screenwriter Jack Seddon, who as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, served in the RAF during World War II. It passed in turn to me after my father’s death in 2001.

I am posting this entry on Armistice Day, 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the ending of World War I.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

The Blue Max (1966)

The Blue Max (1966) is a motion picture following the career of German fighter pilot Leutenant Bruno Stachel during the closing stages of World War I. The screenplay was by David Pursall, Jack Seddon and Gerald Hanley, based on a novel of the same name by Jack Hunter. It was directed by John Guillermin and starred George Peppard, James Mason, Ursula Andress, Jeremy Kemp, Karl Michael Voger, Anton Diffring and Darren Nesbitt. Music was by Jerry Goldsmith.

In the spring of 1918, the war is going very badly for Germany. Bruno Stachel (Peppard), after two years service on the Western Front, leaves the fighting in the trenches to become a fighter pilot with the Imperial German Army Air Service. The son of a hotelier, Stachel is greeted cordially by his new CO, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann (Vogler) and his adjutant Holbach (Diffring), but faces appalling snobbery from his aristocratic squadron-mates on account of his humble background. He determines to prove himself where it matters – in the air (and, later on, in the bedroom) and resolves to win the coveted Pour le Merite – the eponymous Blue Max – “the only medal worth having – people respect it”. The Blue Max is awarded to fighter pilots for downing twenty enemy aircraft (in actuality the number required was gradually increased during the course of the war from eight to thirty). One of the squadron’s pilots, Willi von Klugermann (Kemp) only needs another two kills.

On his first sortie, Stachel shoots down a British SE5, but the “kill” is unconfirmed because nobody saw the aircraft go down. He spends hours searching the countryside in the pouring rain for the wreckage, to the annoyance of his fellow flyers, who think he is more concerned about his unconfirmed kill than he is about his wingman Fabian (Nesbitt), who failed to return. Willi, however, has gained the two remaining kills he needs for his Blue Max.

On his next sortie, accompanied by Willi, Stachel attacks a British two-man reconnaissance plane, putting the observer out of action. Rather than shoot down a helpless enemy, he signals the pilot to surrender and fly to his base. The pilot complies, but while approaching the airfield the observer, who has only been stunned, revives and – unaware of the situation – reaches for his gun, giving Stachel no choice but to shoot the aircraft down. Both the crew are killed.

Back on the ground, Stachel is accused of cold-bloodedly shooting the plane down over the airfield to ensure that the kill is witnessed. After the fuss he kicked up over the unconfirmed kill, Heidemann refuses to believe that Stachel simply acted in self-defence. Only Willi supports Stachel’s version of events. But when the two British airmen are buried with full military honours, Stachel further annoys his fellow officers by branding them as hypocrites.

However things begin to look up for Stachel when Willi’s uncle, General Count von Klugermann (Mason), accompanied by his much younger and somewhat over-sexed wife Kaeti (Andress), visits the base to see his nephew awarded the Blue Max. Von Klugermann is intrigued by the incident with the reconnaissance plane and feels Stachel might be exploited for propaganda purposes – a “working class hero” who will appeal to the masses.

Von Klugermann isn’t the only one to take an interest in Stachel. His wife the Countess –who is having an affair with Willi – mistakenly enters Stachel’s room en route to Willi’s bedroom. Both appear to have their interest piqued!

Back in action, Stachel goes to the aid of the Baron von Richthofen and shoots down a British aircraft that has got on the tail of the legendary fighter ace, but he gets shot down himself in the process. He escapes with only minor injuries and a grateful von Richthofen offers him a place in his squadron. Stachel is flattered by the offer, but declines.

While recovering from his injuries, Stachel is ordered to Berlin by Count von Klugermann as part of the latter’s propaganda project – a photo-shoot in a hospital ward alongside Heidemann’s wife, who works as a nurse at the hospital. While in Berlin, Stachel is invited to dinner by the Countess. The inevitable happens. Willi is none too happy!

Returning to duty, Stachel joins Willi on a mission to escort a reconnaissance aircraft. They are attacked by British aircraft, but early in the engagement Stachel’s guns jam. However Willi puts the enemy planes to flight, shooting down three of them. On the way back to base, Willi challenges Stachel, flying under the centre span of a bridge. Stachel outdoes him by flying under one of the narrower side spans. Willi successfully follows suit, but then clips the top of a near-by tower. He crashes and is killed.

Back at base, Stachel reports Willi’s death, but is furious when Heidemann assumes that two confirmed kills are Willi’s and not his. He falsely claims the kills for himself, but becomes trapped by his lie when Holbach points out that he only fired 40 rounds before his guns jammed. Heidemann refuses to confirm the kills, but von Klugermann overrules him.

Stachel, resuming his liaison with the Countess, is overcome with guilt and rather unwisely confesses to “stealing” Willi’s kills.

With Germany now on the brink of defeat, the squadron is ordered to cover the army’s retreat and strafe British forces on the ground, with explicit instructions to avoid air combat. But Stachel disobeys and engages a group of British aircraft. The squadron follows him into action. They bring down seven aircraft, but suffer heavy losses in the process. Three of the kills are Stachels, giving him twenty-two – enough for the Blue Max even without Willi’s kills.

Heidemann has Stachel arrested and intends to have him court-martialed for disobeying orders. Both are ordered to Berlin, but once again von Klugermann overrules Heidemann and informs him that Stachel is to be presented with the Blue Max by Kronprinz Wilhelm, after which he is to test fly a new experimental monoplane. Heidemann resigns his command in disgust.

The Countess, meanwhile, wants Stachel to flee Germany with her to Switzerland. But Stachel refuses to be one of her “lapdogs” and she storms out in a rage. She then informs von Klugermann’s superior, the Field Marshal, about the two false kills. Hell hath no fury…

The next day, Stachel is invested with the Blue Max, but during the ceremony von Klugermann receives a telephone call from the Field Marshal, who is insisting on an enquiry into the two false kills. Von Klugermann berates his wife, whose anger is going to result in the whole German officer corps being brought into disrepute.

But then Heidemann, who has taken the new monoplane up for a preliminary flight, returns and reports that the aircraft is a death trap and that its load-bearing struts are far too weak. Seeing a way out, von Klugermann telephones Stachel and orders him take the monoplane up himself and show the crowd some fancy flying.

Surrounded by a cheering crowd, with the Blue Max around his neck, Stachel makes his way to the monoplane and takes to the air. Heidemann is utterly horrified when he sees the plane take off and realises that von Klugermann is deliberately sending Stachel to his death. Stachel proceeds to put the aircraft through its paces, but it breaks up, plummets to the ground and explodes. At the moment of impact, von Klugermann stamps and signs Stachel’s personnel file. He orders it to be sent to the Field Marshal as the personnel file of a German officer and a hero.

The story is presented as a clash between the honourable values of Otto Heidemann versus those of the ruthless Stachel and the cynical scheming Count von Klugermann. The Prussian aristocracy had traditional notions of chivalry which – no matter how commendable – had little or no place in the brutal reality of Twentieth Century warfare. Unfortunately there was in actuality a far more ruthless “working class hero” than Bruno Stachel serving as a corporal on the Western Front during World War I – Adolf Hitler.


The Blue Max was filmed in County Wicklow with the consequence that the memorable flying scenes are set against the verdant Irish countryside rather than the sea of mud that was the Western Front by 1918. Another blooper is that the Irish Dail can clearly be seen in one of the “Berlin” scenes, which were filmed in Dublin.

It should however be remembered that people were less obsessed with absolute authenticity in the 1950s and 1960s: for example in The Battle of the River Plate, the panzerschiff Admiral Graff Spee is “played” by the heavy cruiser USS Salem. The inconvenient extra pair of main gun turrets was explained away as “camouflage”. The story certainly didn’t suffer as a result and is far better remembered for its sympathetic portrayal of the Graf Spee’s skipper, Hans Langsdorff, played by Peter Finch.

Modern CGI can achieve a degree of realism way beyond anything that could be achieved back then. Or can it? The flying scenes in the Blue Max used real aeroplanes flown by real pilots, including Peppard, who obtained a PPL especially for the purpose, though for the bridge scene he was rather wisely substituted for a stunt pilot!

Jack Seddon [my father] and his long-standing business partner David Pursall both served as airmen in World War II; my father flew with the RAF and David with the Royal Fleet Air Arm.

Beginning in the 1950s, David and my father formed a prolific screenwriting partnership which endured for almost three decades.

Much of their oeuvre was comedy but probably their best-known film other than the Blue Max was also a war movie: The Longest Day (1962) – an all-star dramatization of the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. This was notable for its use of subtitles in scenes involving French and Germans and for being made in black and white at a time when nearly all motion pictures were being made in colour. Both were at the insistence of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to give the film a “newsreel” quality. The Longest Day was thus one of the earliest examples of both subtitles and b/w being used for dramatic effect.

The film was based on a book by the Irish-American author Cornelius Ryan, who also wrote a screenplay for the movie version. The screenplay was substantially revised by Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and my father. But Ryan allegedly insisted that he alone be credited for the screenplay and although all five were credited in early cinematic releases of the Longest Day, later copies credited only Ryan. This did not come to light until the 1990s, over thirty years after the film’s appearance, by which time my father was the only one of the five still living. He got into a lengthy wrangle with the US screenwriters guild, but the matter was still unresolved at the time of his death in 2001. Happily a compromise now appears to have been reached, with Cornelius Ryan credited as writer of the original screenplay and the other four including my father with “additional work”. It should be pointed out that Halliwell’s Film Guide has always attributed the screenplay to all five writers.

© Christopher Seddon 2008

7/5: The sinking of the Lusitania

The dramatic obverse design of this medal portrays the last moments of the liner RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by the German submarine U-20 on 7 May 1915 with heavy loss of life. The medal is a British copy, struck in iron, of a medal produced by the Munich-based metalworker and medallist Karl Goetz, who intended to satirize what he saw as the greed of the Cunard Line in continuing to operate the ship in a warzone whilst allowing her to be used to transport contraband military materiel from the then-neutral US to aid the British war effort.

The obverse inscription reads:

Keine Bannware!

Der Grossdampfer
Durch Ein Deutscher
Tauchboot Versenkt
5 May 1915.

This translates as: “No Contraband! The large steamer Lusitania sunk by a German submarine/5 May 1915″. The copy erroneously uses the British spelling of “May”. The medal inaccurately portrays the ship going down by the stern.

The reverse of the medal portrays a skeleton handing out tickets for the ill-fated voyage with the inscription “Geschaft uber alles” (Business before everything).

Crucially, Goetz got the date of the sinking wrong, leading to the belief among the British and Americans that the attack on the Lusitania was premeditated and the medals had been produced in advance of the sinking to glorify the destruction of the great liner – neither in fact being the case. Goetz corrected the error in later editions of the medal but the damage was done. Selfridges of London were commissioned to produce copies of Goetz’s medal in large numbers, to whip up anti-German sentiment.

It was hardly necessary. With 1,198 dead, including all but a handful of the 139 Americans aboard, there was universal outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, probably only matched 86 years later by the events of 9/11. Had U-20’s 32-year-old skipper Walther Schweiger – seen in much the same light as Osama bin Laden would later be – survived the war he would undoubtedly have been put on trial by the Allies, but he was killed in 1917.

But was Schweiger really a war criminal, or was the Lusitania – as Goetz and later apologists for the sinking imply – a legitimate target? Frankly, in the light of subsequent events, the point is moot. Was Guernica a legitimate target? Or Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Mi Lai or KAL Flight 007? During the last century, advances in technology made it ever easier to kill large number of people, and civilian casualties – hardly something new in the history of warfare – increased accordingly. The sinking of the Lusitania was simply the first instance in which a warring state had used weapons of mass destruction against the citizens of its enemies. As with 11 September 2001, 7 May 1915 merely saw Homo sapiens’ penchant for killing one another enter a new phase.

It is probably more meaningful to look at the sinking itself, and when one does, the parallels with later events – 9/11 in particular – become apparent.

When launched in 1906, the Lusitania and her sister ship Mauretania were the largest and fastest ships afloat. Cunard took the bold step of using the newly-invented Parsons Turbine in place of the reciprocating engines that were then generally used in large ships, which gave them a service speed of 26 knots. White Star’s Olympic and Titanic, launched five years later, were substantially larger, but nowhere near as fast.

To help meet the enormous cost of construction, Cunard lobbied successfully for a government subsidy. In return, the ships were built to Admiralty specifications, so that they could be armed and function as naval auxiliaries in time of war. In fact there is no way liners could ever hope to fight warships on equal terms, and although armed merchantmen did fight enemy warships with great courage – most notably the Rawalpindi and the Jervis Bay during WW II – the final outcome of such battles was always inevitable. However even by the outbreak of the Great War it was recognised that high-value units such as the Lusitania and the Mauretania would be of more use assigned to other duties, most notably carrying troops, and indeed the latter did serve in this capacity during the war.

The Lusitania, however, remained in passenger service, and on 1 May 1915 she sailed from New York, having arrived there from Liverpool on 24 April. Just days earlier, on 22 April, the German Embassy in Washington had issued a chilling warning:

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

Washington, D.C. April 22, 1915

By a strange twist of fate, the notice appeared side by side in the New York Times with an advertisement for the Lusitania’s eastbound crossing. This did lead, understandably, to concern among Lusitania’s crew and intending passengers. The liner’s experienced skipper, William Turner, 58, tried to calm fears by explaining that his ship was fast enough to keep out of trouble. The reality was the ship was operating with only 19 of her 25 boilers in use, the remainder being shut down to save coal, which reduced her speed to 21 knots; the more experienced hands from her pre-war crew had joined the Navy and been replaced with less capable men; and boat-drills on the voyage were poorly attended and casually carried out.

As with the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, Madrid and London, the chances to avoid what would probably now be referred to as 7/5 were missed.

As the ship entered what the Germans had designated a warzone, Turner failed to carry out Admiralty-designated zigzag manoeuvres and ignored two submarine warnings, apparently more preoccupied with reaching Liverpool on the right tide. The Admiralty in turn failed to send out a destroyer escort that might have deterred a U-Boat attack. Precautions were not entirely absent: lifeboats were swung out and extra lookouts posted. The ship’s watertight doors were closed. Unlike those in the Titanic, these went up the full height of the hull, but while the Lusitania would probably survived a collision of the type that sank the Titanic, they were to afford no protection against what lay ahead.

Early in the afternoon on 7 May, the Lusitania was off the Irish coast, close to the Old Head of Kinsale. She had encountered fog and was steaming at a reduced speed of 18 knots when at 14:10 she crossed the bow of U-20. Kapitan-Leutnant Walter Schweiger, barely able to believe his luck, gave the order to attack. One story states that the boat’s quartermaster, Charles Voegele, refused to give to order to fire on the liner and was subsequently court-martialled and jailed for three years. If true, this lenient sentence must have reflected the ambiguity felt in Germany over the sinking. The normal penalty for refusing to obey a direct order in a combat situation would have been death.

The Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo on her starboard side, just forward the bridge. Almost immediately, the huge liner suffered a second, larger explosion. Water poured in, and she immediately began to list 15 degrees to starboard. An SOS was sent out and Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship. But the list made it very difficult to launch the lifeboats and only six of 48 boats were successfully launched from the stricken liner. As the ship began to go down by the bow, panic broke out on board. Captain Turner tried to make for the Irish coast, in the hope of beaching the ship, but power to the rudder was out.

The oft-repeated horror-story of passengers drowning, trapped between floors in the lift in the First Class accommodation, is almost certainly apocryphal. In common with all lifts of that time, the one aboard Lusitania required an operator to work it, and both the ship’s lift-operators survived the sinking. This did not prevent a recent drama documentary about the disaster featuring the brave but hopeless attempts of an American woman to open the door of a lift with a hatpin, though this might have also been inspired by the actual escape of a group of people from a lift in the doomed World Trade Center.

The Lusitania sank in 20 minutes. It took some hours for help to arrive from the Irish coast, during which survivors clung to wreckage, including – it is said – a chicken coop. Many survived the sinking itself, only to perish in the chilly waters before they could be rescued. Like Captain Smith of the Titanic, Turner stayed with his ship until the end, but unlike the former, he was among the survivors.

The cause of the second explosion, which doomed the great liner, is argued to this day. Some claim U-20 actually fired two torpedoes, but the Imperial German Navy authorities doctored Schweiger’s log to try and mitigate the storm of international protest; others attribute the explosion to the alleged munitions aboard; oceanographer and explorer Dr. Bob Ballard blames coal-dust in the Lusitania’s bunkers, almost empty towards the end of the voyage; another theory (which seems the likeliest) is that a boiler-room explosion did the damage. Schweiger’s log in fact considers all three possibilities.

After the Titanic, the sinking of the Lusitania is generally accepted as the most famous maritime disaster of all time, but what makes it all the more shocking is that while the former was an accident, the latter was an act of war. However it is viewed, the fact remains that an unarmed passenger liner was deliberately targeted, resulting in the deaths of almost twelve hundred innocent civilians.

The final word on the Lusitania must go to the late Frank Braynard, from his 1985 work Fifty Famous Ocean Liners:

”…[the war’s] long range impact on history has yet to be properly understood. The part the Lusitania was to play had nothing to do with her qualities as a great ship. She was the victim of the war, as were the millions who were slaughtered in that asinine display of mankind’s stupidity”.

© Christopher Seddon 2008